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Microsoft: Real-Time Requires Open Systems
By Erin Joyce

December 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Microsoft is increasingly preaching the gospel of open systems and Web-based software — especially with real -time collaboration.

Take its Office Communicator system, the platform for its MSN Instant Messaging (IM) application, as well as its Live Communications Server 2005, which supports its real-time collaboration using the Web. The company today announced a release to manufacturing (RTM) of its Web-based enterprise communications client, Office Communicator Web Access.

Based on Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, otherwise known as Ajax , the RTM release is designed to help workers (at least ones with licenses to Live Communication Server) access not only their own IM platform, but also communicate with other workers across different IM platforms and enterprise networks.

“We’re fuzzing the boundaries between communication and collaboration,” Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Real Time Collaboration (RTC) Group, said during a keynote address at the Interop conference here.

And in another sign of Microsoft’s embrace of open systems for Web-based computing, the release works with all of the most popular browsers beyond IE, such as Firefox and Opera, as well as non-Windows operating systems.

“Rigid systems, closed systems do not have a future in the Real-Time Internet,” Pall said. “Innovation. That’s what’s going to drive the Real-Time Internet.” Of course, the convergence of voice and data is a critical component of that future.

The release is the latest in a coming flurry of Web-based software since Microsoft announced last month it would offer ad -supported, online versions of its Office productivity suite and Windows operating systems.

That’s one of the concepts driving Redmond’s latest Live Communications Server and Office Communicator RTM release.

Using Live Communication Server 2005, people can “work remotely or from locked-down computers or non-Windows operating systems,” Pall added. Communicator Web Access, used in conjunction with Microsoft’s Live Communications Server, already enables enterprise-grade connectivity among the MSN, AOL and Yahoo! public IM services.

Federating IM systems are a key factor of this shift to real, real-time collaboration in the office. Microsoft recently joined with Yahoo to provide federated access to each other’s IM networks. AOL and Microsoft are also working together to allow cross-platform connectivity with enterprise users. All told, Pall said, this helps open up a network of some 400 million IM users across the three dominant IM platforms.

Pall, who co-authored the first VPN protocol in the industry, said telephony is poised to experience the dramatic changes with Voice over IP and collaboration technologies, much the same way the browser did 10 years ago.

But real-time collaboration is more than just shoveling voice packets over an IP network. “It’s lots more than that,” he said. “It all starts with what we call identity, a globally unique (IM) identity that you can take with you and integrate with rights management policies.”

That concept, only with a more open systems message, was on display during a demonstration of the LCS server and the Office Communication application during Pall’s keynote. For example, he showed how one worker could access other colleagues on IM across different IM networks, and use that IM communication as a launching pad for other communications, such as video, mobile communication and document collaboration.

The system enables users to make calls to traditional PBX-based phone systems, mobile phones, as well as from one PC to another, thanks to its integration of the SIP and SIMPLE protocols.

But this is only just the beginning, Pall said.

After all, the tech industry tends to overestimate what can happen within three years of innovation but underestimate what can happen in a decade. Witness the impact of the browser, which hit the world and transformed communication with the impact of a meteorite crashing into earth.

Back then, the Internet was the mostly the province of “propeller heads” in IT and academia who, frankly, didn’t need a graphical user interface to communicate. Thanks to the emergence of the browser and the Web, an estimated billion people now access the Web around the globe daily, making real-time access to the Internet even more critical, he added.

Yet telephony systems — like the ones most office workers use — haven’t taken part in all that change. Many systems remain marooned by legacy PSTN analog systems, even as more enterprises and consumers deploy Voice over IP and turn their voice calls into packets. “Telephony systems are the most closed systems that we’ve known as technologists,” Pall said. But that’s changing with the emergence of open systems that enable communication similar to e-mail protocols, he added.

Today’s RTM of Communicator provides a Web version of the desktop version of the Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 client, and is designed to be deployed into companies’ existing infrastructures easily, Pall said. Once it is deployed, users need only open their Web browser, point it to a specified Web site address and enter their credentials to access Communicator Web Access.

With IM systems now becoming more open across different platforms, look for video to become increasingly important as part of the collaboration mix, Pall added, including multi-party video, which will soon be added into the Office Communicator system.

The video part is easy to deploy once the VoIP functionality is architected, and Microsoft is moving quickly in the VoIP sector. For example, it announced a partnership with telecommunications carrier MCI (Quote, Chart) to offer PC-to-phone service with the next version of Windows Live Messenger, which launched a limited beta test today.

The move is another reflection of Redmond’s increasing acceptance of the critical need of open systems in order for true, real-time collaboration to take place, and its shift to offer more of its desktop-bound applications over the Web.

The latest upgrade is part of Microsoft’s roadmap for real-time communication technologies it has been touting all year.

Last March, for example, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the company’s roadmap for collaboration technology started with its MSN IM client. At the time, Gates said “we take identity and presence and put it in the center. All the other applications connect to that.”

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